PART I - BEFORE
It was a house for small people, she decided upon arrival, which was just as well because they made a small family. Only Emma and Dad. They were small in happiness, small in hospitality and neither of them broke far clear of five foot.
They stumbled around the place that evening, not yet accustomed to their smallness even though they’d suffered three months of it. The cottage was full of nooks and crannies, each containing cupboards or narrow staircases which were scrabbled away like secrets. The whole house seemed to be tucked-up and hidden as its front door clung unexpectedly onto the end of a row of shrunken terraced houses. She liked it; for once she felt like she actually fitted.
It could not have been more different to their roomy apartment back home in Rouen but the change was, for the most part, welcome. It was relieving to have less space because the space had been a constant reminder of everything that was missing. She had hated the last three months; the pair of them like two droplets, rattling around inside their house-half-empty.
On the other hand, their new-found proximity made it harder to ignore the pain that the other was consumed by. Forced closer together, they brushed against one another, their emotions jostling inescapably. When she walked past Dad, crumpled at the kitchen table, she could feel the grate of his grief, crushing on hers so that the whole room seemed crowded with it. Their mourning bubbled-over and ran into each other’s; all those unspoken departing words and all those untied ends. She thought of the pair of them as balloons that had been loosed and sent sky-ward without a map.
They’d spent the spring enclosed in their own cocoons, carefully avoiding anything that was too much like touching. Conversation never crept beyond “pass the jam” and “I’m hungry” and “Did you remember the washing?” It also forgot to speak French.
“I’d bought Anastasie a birthday present,” Dad said as they propped themselves up on cardboard boxes that evening.
“Yes.” Emma knew. So had she.
They both stared at the garden.
That was the other problem with the place that was now Home; the shared garden. It sat between the last three cottages of the terrace, threateningly bedecked with plastic chairs and tables. The series of doors that led off the patio area scared her; they were an unmistakable symbol of enforced sociability. Emma didn’t like talking anymore; the truth was that she didn’t do enough of it.
It was sort of funny really – the couple who had sold them the house were expecting their second child and were expanding while Emma and Dad were condensing. They were trying to squeeze out the air-pockets in their family, and for that moment, they seemed to have achieved it. A vacuum had been created – the kitchen became a silent void.
They and the other family were opposites but saw each other as grotesque reflections of themselves. Like those mirrors that distorted your image. One family was growing, the other shrinking.
Thankfully, Emma thought as she scanned the boxes that had not migrated past the kitchen, there was little to squash into the house with them. This was because there was little left to claim ownership of that hadn’t belonged to, or been linked with, Anastasie and Maman.
Bad memories were too big for the new place – they had to go, along with the furniture. They’d each had to cut off parts of themselves too: the familiar flow of French on their tongues, the fact that Emma’s name was actually Emmanuelle and Dad’s determination to stop smoking.
“It’s nice here,” she said when it became clear that Dad was not prepared to fill the empty kitchen with his own words. She was not entirely sure whether the setting they’d stumbled into mattered, but it gave her something to say.
“Yes,” Dad said, and they left it at that.
It was an old cottage and had the quaintness of a doll’s house. There were three storeys but they consisted of low ceilings and tight corners which restricted the placement of furniture. The walls were a patchwork of burnt-orange brick and white slats and the roof dipped and twisted, like a hat, above them. The village itself was a compilation of equally eccentric angles but with enough uniformity to avoid looking like a jumble sale. Glancing down the slope of the road, the high-street of cramped, quirky shops and the peak of a windmill could be seen; it all looked idyllic despite the rain.
Whether by chance or by design, Dad had brought them to the sort of place she had never before visited. It was like being stood on a stage while the set was arranged around her. Everything unfolded beyond her anticipation. They could have done worse; the view was pretty and had all the cosy affluence of a postcard.
Perhaps it really was nice, she told herself, and maybe she even believed it…
“The shoes, Maman, the shoes! Please, please, please!” Anastasie remembers them suddenly as they walk back to the car. They are staggering with the shopping bags, loaded up like pack horses, and completely sick of clothes rails.
“You don’t need another pair of shoes,” Emmanuelle groans, unprepared to be dragged back to look at the unnecessary but alluring sequined ballet flats.
“Ana-” Maman begins wearily but Anastasie wriggles and grabs her arm, pleading with ten-year-old petulance.
“But you made a promise… Please!” Anastasie is always such a hypocrite; she calls them up on every broken promise but never remembers to keep her own. She is allowed to be a hypocrite, however, because she is young and beautiful and too fragile to be scolded.
“They’re so over-priced, though,” Emmanuelle decides and she continues down the road towards the car. She supposes that she is perhaps somewhat stingy but she never sees the point in such excessive expense.
“We aren’t poor.” Maman snaps at her and rakes a hand wearily through her hair. Maman has always been touchy on the subject of wealth, spending her whole life trying to remind everyone around them that she is respectable and middle-class. Emmanuelle turns to watch her deliberate and can see how torn she is. Maman doesn’t want to turn back but she knows that she cannot break a promise.
Anastasie is still hopping around, pleading and not noticing how exhausted Maman is. She’s wearing one of her new dresses and it’s flinging out around her like a canopy.
“It’s nearly my birthday!” She keeps telling them that, as though they hadn’t noticed the impending celebrations.
Emmanuel sighs bitterly and watches someone parking a green Citroën a little further up the road. She longs to just flop down in her own car and be driven home – far from the tediousness of shopping malls. She knows it won’t work like that. Emmanuelle knows that Maman will cave in. She knows that Anastasie will get the shoes.
That’s how it works.
“Come on Anastasie – the shop shuts soon,” Maman says and starts walking choppily back the way they’ve come. Back to the shops that are trying to shut. “Come on – don’t you want them after all?”
“I’ll stay here,” Emmanuelle calls as her little sister scampers delightedly behind their mother. “See you soon.”
Emma jolted awake, flinging the covers off her. In the subconscious of her sleep they had been on fire. They had been writhing with smoke and spewing flames like the shopping centre.
I’ll stay here, she’d said, see you soon. That was how it worked. That was how the cliché went, wasn’t it? The protagonist would always miss the right moment for a goodbye; they would always be too careless or ignorant or sheltered to remember that The Worst Day begins like every other day. The thing about The Worst Day is that it’s unexpected, Emma told herself, beginning to shake now that she was removed from the furnace of disturbed sleep.
She couldn’t have known that that collection of words on the pavement would be the last time she would ever see that half of her life. She couldn’t have anticipated that that was the last chance to hold onto both of them; hug them, kiss them, and reel-off her love for them. If she’d known that that would be her last memory, she would have wound herself around them, locking all three together for as much of forever as she could manage.
She would have argued harder, she would have stung them more, she would have clung to them as they attempted to leave. She might even have followed them.
No. No, no, no, no. You didn’t mean that.
She entertained the thought and fleetingly then dropped it as though scalded by the very notion. It was a grotesque idea that she might choose herself a death or might put her poor broken father on hold – his solitary needs shifted to a lower level in the hierarchy of importance.
Emma, furious with her own thoughts, wrapped herself into the sweaty duvet and tried to force her way back to sleep – back to France and a burning shopping centre, and a burning girl, and a burning mother. Back to the end.